The groundbreaking novel that launched Cherryh's eponymous space opera series of first contact and its consequences...
It had been nearly five centuries since the starship Phoenix, lost in space and desperately searching for the nearest G5 star, had encountered the planet of the atevi. On this alien world, law was kept by the use of registered assassination, alliances were defined by individual loyalties not geographical borders, and war became inevitable once humans and one faction of atevi established a working relationship. It was a war that humans had no chance of winning on this planet so many light-years from home.
Now, nearly two hundred years after that conflict, humanity has traded its advanced technology for peace and an island refuge that no atevi will ever visit. Then the sole human the treaty allows into atevi society is marked for an assassin's bullet. THe work of an isolated lunatic? The interests of a particular faction? Or the consequence of one human's fondness for a species which has fourteen words for betrayal and not a single word for love?
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It was the deep dark, unexplored except for robotic visitors. The mass that existed here was Earth’s second stepping-stone toward a strand of promising stars; and, for the first manned ship to drop into its influence, the mass point was a lonely place, void of the electromagnetic chaff that filled human space, the gossip and chatter of trade, the instructions of human control to ships and crews, the fast, sporadic communication of machine talking to machine. Here, only the radiation of the mass, the distant stars, and the background whisper of existence itself rubbed up against the sensors with force enough to attract attention.
Here, human beings had to remember that the universe was far wider than their little nest of stars—that, in the universe at large, silence was always more than the noisiest shout of life. Humans explored and intruded against it, and built their stations and lived their lives, a biological contamination of the infinite, a local and temporary condition.
And not the sole inhabitants of the universe: that was no longer possible for humans to doubt. So wherever the probes said life might exist, wherever stars looked friendly to living creatures, humans ventured with some caution, and unfolded their mechanical ears and listened into the dark—as Phoenix listened intently during her hundred hours traverse of realspace.
She heard nothing at any range—which pleased her captains and the staff aboard. Phoenix wanted to find no prior claims to what she wanted, which was a bridge to a new, resources-rich territory, most particularly and immediately a G5 star designated T-230 in the Defense codebooks, 89020 on the charts, and mission objective, in the plans Phoenix carried in her data banks.
Reach the star, unlimber the heavy equipment … create a station that would welcome traders and expand human presence into a new and profitable area of space.
So Phoenix carried the bootstrap components for that construction, the algaes and the cultures for a station’s life-sustaining tanks, the plans and the circuit maps, the diagrams and the processes and the programs, the data and the detail; she carried as well the miner-pilots and the mechanics and the builders and processors and the technical staff that would be, for their principal reward, earliest shareholders in the first-built trading station to develop down this chain of stars—Earth’s latest and most confident colonial commitment, with all the expertise of past successes.
Optics told Mother Earth where the rich stars were. Robots probed the way without any risk of human life...probed and returned with their navigational data and their first-hand observations: T-230 was a system so rich Phoenix ran mass-loaded to the limit, streaking along at a rate a ship dared carry when she expected no other traffic, and when she had no doubt of refuel capabilities at her destination. She shoved the gas and dust around her into a brief, bright disturbance, while her crew ran its hundred-hour routine of maintenance, recalibrations, and navigational checks. The captains shared coffee on the last watch before re-entry, took the general reports, and approved the schedule the way the navigator, McDonough, keyed it.
But what the pilot received of that discussion was a blinking green dot on the edge of his display and a vague sense that things were proceeding comfortably on schedule, aboard a ship in good order. Taylor was On, which meant Taylor had input coming at him at rates it took a computer interface to sort, and, insulated from the tendencies of an unassisted human mind to process laterally and distract itself from the rush of data, Taylor had his ears devoted to computer signals and his eyes and his perceptions chemically adjusted to the computer-filtered velocity of the ship’s passage.
The green dot had to be there before he hyped out. The dot had showed up, and what other human beings did about it was not in any sense Taylor’s business or realization. When that exit point came at him, and time folded up in his face, he reached confidently ahead and through space, toward T-230.
He was a master pilot. The drugs in his blood made him highly specific in his concentration, and highly abstract in his understandings of the data that flashed in front of his eyes and screamed into his ears. He would have targeted Phoenix into the heart of hell if those had been the coordinates the computer handed him. But it was to T-230 he was looking.
For that reason, he was the only one aboard aware when the ship kept going, and time stayed folded.
His heart began to pound in realtime, his eyes were fixed on screens flashing red, lines, and then dots, as those lines became hypothetical, and last of all a black screen, where POINT ERROR glowed in red letters like the irretrievable judgment of God.
Heartbeat kept accelerating. He reached for the ABORT and felt the cap under his fingers. He had no vision now. It was all POINT ERROR. He scarcely felt the latch: and time was still folding as he uncapped the ABORT, for a reason he no longer remembered. Unlike the computer, he had no object but that single, difficult necessity.
God had no more data.
The ship dropped and the alarm sounded: This is not a drill. Computer failure. This is not a drill....
McDonough’s heart was thumping and the sweat was running from exertion as he pressed the button to query Taylor. Every screen was blank.
This is not a drill....
The hard-wired Abort was in action. Phoenix was saving herself. She blew off v with no consideration of fragile human bodies inside her.
Phoenix then attempted to re-boot her computers from inflowing information. She queried her captain, her navigator, and her pilot and co-pilot, with painful shocks to the Q-patch. Two more such jolts, before McDonough found data taking shape on his screens at the navigation station.
Video displayed the star.
No, two stars, one glaring blue-white, one faint red. McDonough sat frozen at his post, seeing in Phoenix’ future-line a coasting drift to white, nuclear hell.
“Where are we?” someone asked. “Where are we?”
It was a question the navigator took for accusation. McDonough felt it like a blow to his already abused gut, and looked toward the pilot for an answer. But Taylor was just staring at his screens, doing nothing, not moving.
“Inoki,” McDonough said. But the co-pilot was slumped unconscious or worse.
“Get Greene up here. Greene and Goldberg, to the bridge.” That was LaFarge on the staff channel, senior captain, hard-nosed and uncompromising, calling up the two backup pilots.
McDonough felt the shakes set in, wondered if LaFarge was going to call up all the backups, and oh, one part of him wanted that, wanted to go to his bunk and lie there inert and not have to deal with reality, but he had to learn what that binary star was and where they were and what mistake he might conceivably have committed to put them here. The nutrients the med-plug was shooting into him were making him sick. The sight in front of him was insane. Optics couldn’t be wrong. The robots couldn’t be wrong. Their instruments couldn’t be wrong.
“Sir?” Karly McEwan was sitting beside him, as stunned as he was—his own immediate number two: she was shaken, but she was punching buttons, trying, clamp-jawed as she was, to get sense out of chaos. “Sir? Go to default? Sir?”
“Default for now,” he muttered, or some higher brain function did, while his conscious intelligence was operating on some lower floor. The ‘for now’ that had bubbled up as a caution hit his faltering intelligence like a pronouncement of doom, because he didn’t see any quick way to get a baseline for this system. “Spectrum analysis, station two and three. Chart comparison, station four. Station five, rerun the initiation and target coordinates.” The forebrain was still giving orders. The rest was functioning like Taylor, which was not at all. “We need a medic up here. Is Kiyoshi on the bridge? Taylor and Inoki are in trouble.”
“Are we stable?” Kiyoshi Tanaka’s voice, asking if it was safe to unbelt and go after the pilots, but every question seemed to echo with double meanings, every question trailed off into unknowns and unknowables. “Stable as we can be,” LaFarge said, and meanwhile the spectral analysis program was turning up a flood of data and running comparisons on every star system on file, a steady crawl of non-matches on McDonough’s number one screen, while the bottom of it reported NOT A MATCH, 3298 ITEMS EXAMINED.
“We’re getting questions from channel B,” came from Communications. “Specials are requesting to leave quarters. Requesting screen output.”
Taylor’s routine. Taylor had always given the passengers a view, leaving Earth system, entering the mass points, and leaving them....
“No,” LaFarge said harshly. “No image.” A blind man could see it was trouble. “Say it’s a medical on the bridge. Say we’re busy.”
Tanaka had reached Taylor and Inoki, and was injecting something into Taylor, McDonough was aware of that. The passengers were feeling the variance in routine, and the NOT A MATCH hadn’t changed.
The computer had run out of local stars.
“Karly, you prioritized search from default one?”
“From default,” Navigation Two answered. The search for matching stars had started with Sol and the near neighborhood. “Our vector, plus and minus ten lights.”
The sick feeling in McDonough’s gut increased.
Nothing made sense. The backup pilots showed up, asking distracting questions nobody could answer, the same questions every navigator was asking the instruments and the records. The captain told the medic to get Taylor and Inoki off the bridge—the captain swore when he said it, and McDonough distractedly started running checks of his own while Tanaka got the two pilots on their feet—Taylor could walk, but Taylor looked blind to what was going on. Inoki was moving, but just scarcely: one of the com techs had to haul him up and carry him, once Tanaka unbuckled him and unplugged the tube from his implant. Neither of them looked at Greene or Goldberg as they passed. Taylor’s eyes were set on infinity. Inoki’s were shut.
SEARCH FURTHER? the computer asked, having searched all the stars within thirty lights of Earth.
“We stand at 5% on fuel,” the captain reported calmly—a potential death sentence. “Any com pickup at all?”
At this star? McDonough asked himself, and: “Dead silent,” Communications said. “The star’s noisy enough to mask God-knows-what.”
“Go long range, back up our vector. Assume we overshot the star.”
A moment later, hydraulics whined up on the hull. The big dish was unpacking and unfolding, preparing to listen. V was down to a crawl safe for its deployment—safe, if it was Earth’s own Sun, but it wasn’t. There was no data on this system. They were gathering it, drinking it in every sensor, but nothing gave them even minimal certainty there wasn’t a rock in their path. Nobody had ever come in at a close binary, or a mass as large. God only knew what had happened to the field.
McDonough’s hands were shaking as he punched up the scope of both search sequences, approaching a hundred lights distant in all directions, search negative, past their objective. They still didn’t know where they were, but with 5% fuel in reserve, they weren’t leaving soon, either. They had the miner-craft: thank God they had the miner-craft and the station components. They might gather system ice and refuel...
Except that was a radiation hell out there, except the solar wind that blue-white sun threw out was a killing wind. This was not a star where flesh and blood could live, and if the miners did go out to work in that, they had to limit their time outside.
Or if the ship was, as it might well be, infalling, on a massive star’s gravity slope … they’d meet that radiation close-up before they went down.
“We’ve rerun the initiation sequence,” Greene said, from Taylor’s seat. “We don’t find any flaw in the commands.”
Meaning Taylor had keyed in on what navigation had given him. A cold apprehension gnawed at McDonough’s stomach.
“Any answer, Mr. McDonough?”
“Not yet, sir.” He kept his voice calm. He didn’t feel that way. He hadn’t made a mistake. But he couldn’t prove it by anything they had from the instruments.
A ship couldn’t come out of hyperspace aimed differently than it had on entry. It didn’t. It couldn’t.
But if some hyperspace particle had screwed the redundant storage, if the computer had lost its destination point and POINT ERROR was the answer, they couldn’t run far enough on their fuel mass to be out of sight of stars they knew.
Two stars, in any degree near each other, both with spectra matching the charts, were all they needed. Any two-star match against their charts could start to locate them, and they couldn’t be more than five lights off their second mass point, if they’d run out all the fuel they were carrying—couldn’t be. Not farther than twenty lights from Earth total at most.
But there wasn’t a massive blue-white within twenty lights of the Sun, except Sirius, and this wasn’t Sirius. Spectra of those paired suns were a no-match. It wasn’t making sense. Nothing was.
He started looking for pulsars. When you were out of short yardsticks you looked for the long ones, the ones that wouldn’t lie, and you started thinking about half-baked theories, like cosmic macrostructures, folded interfaces, or any straw of reason that might give a mind something to work on or suggest a direction they’d gone or offer a hint which of a hundred improbables was the truth.